The Contractor’s State License Board is urging victims of the Sand Fire to ensure any contractors for debris removal or rebuilding — or even those acting as a consultant and hiring other contractors — have a valid license.
The Amador County and El Dorado County District Attorney offices have joined with the CSLB to crack down on fraud, Melanie Bedwell of the CSLB said, utilizing the Statewide Investigative Fraud Team — better known as SWIFT.
If the contractor is unlicensed, Bedwell said, they are likely unskilled and lack the knowledge needed to get the job done correctly. “It has to be done to code,” she said. There is also the worry about Worker’s Compensation, which does not exist for unlicensed contractors, and taking money and disappearing with no contract.
She also cautioned victims to not make an excessive down payment — licensed contractors will only ask for about 10 percent of the total or $1,000, whichever is less — though there are some exceptions, noted on the contractor’s individual license.
Contractors doing any repairs or improvements valued at $500 or more in combined labor and material cost must be licensed, Bedwell said. Otherwise, they are in violation of Business and Professions Code 7028.
“The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting the citizens of our community from contractor fraud and scams,” said El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson in a press release.
Amador County District Attorney Todd Riebe agreed. “Both of our offices are committed to prevention, enforcement, and aggressive prosecution against those who victimize vulnerable residents like those who lost everything in the Sand Fire.”
“Consumer protection efforts by CSLB’s Statewide Investigative Fraud Team (SWIFT) are stepped up in post-disaster areas to help shield people from being victimized a second time by illegal contracting,” said CSLB Registrar Steve Sands. “It only takes a minute to check our Website to find out if a contractor is licensed and in good standing with CSLB.” The Website can be found at cslb.ca.gov.
Bedwell and a small team, including two members of SWIFT and an investigator from the DA’s Office, visited the remains of houses on Thursday. On the first house, a white ribbon attached to a chain blocking the driveway had handwriting noting that a structure, car, outbuilding and RV trailer had been damaged or destroyed. What had been a white car was charred black in places; the tires had since melted during the fire. Of the debris, the most recognizable surviving objects were a chimney, a barbecue and propane tanks attached to the RV trailer frame. Warped metal furniture was also visible. After investigating the damage, the team put a sign in front of the house to warn the homeowner of possible scams.
Another house showed how hot the fire had been — part of an aluminum ladder had melted, causing a river of molten metal, which had since cooled again. The melting point for aluminum is 1,221 F.
At a third home, 2403 Painted Pony Road in Somerset, a peacock greeted the team at the driveway gate. Ahead, Mike Bamber was sifting through the pile of rubble that was once his home.
Bamber related his story to the team, of how he was told to evacuate at 6:48 a.m., grabbing his cats and dachshunds. His wife was out of town and his son was house sitting, leaving the task to him. His neighbor’s car was in the way of his driveway, necessitating him pushing it out of the way.
His one-story modular home was completely destroyed in the fire, with one of his two 500 gallon propane tanks exploding and landing across the driveway. “It looks like this place has been hit by napalm,” the Vietnam veteran said.
One of his three goats was killed by the fire, along with his garden, barn, a storage shed and a well house. The well pump fell down the well, which will require someone retrieving it. A tractor, flag pole and flag were spared from the flames, as well as a mausoleum across the street where his family’s coat of arms stands.
“I lost a lot of history,” he said. His family came to Placerville in 1853, he said, and he was able to trace his family back to the 800s in England. His coin and stamp collections, which he began as a young boy, were both gone, save for a single gold coin. Collectible World War II china plates were intact but smeared with ash, and an antique Chinese whiskey jug was broken in three pieces but repairable. Irreplaceable family albums and his father’s medals from the war were gone; his own medals could be replaced. “It’s devastating,” he said. “I’m soldiering on, taking care of business.”
The peacock, Peabody, strutted around the area as he told his story to Bedwell and the team. The bird had suddenly appeared at the front gate four years ago, Bamber said, and has yet to leave. Now, Peabody is “like a phoenix from the ashes,” he said.
He still had a good sense of humor, despite his loss. “I just bought a new Weber,” he said, pointing in the direction of where the grill was. “I guess there has been enough barbecue around here.”
He would be removing the debris of his house himself, he told Bedwell, as it was the first step in rebuilding. “I’ll learn from my mistakes. Life goes on,” he said. Now he can have the bigger house he originally wanted. He told Bedwell that he is very selective of who he works with, usually friends, and that he would be wary of anyone offering their services as contractor. He’s already had help from friends and the local American Legion Post. The firefighters also helped, looking after what was left while he was evacuated.
When asked if he would stay on his land and rebuild, he took the question as a challenge. “You’re damn right,” he said. “I’m not a quitter.” While fighting in Vietnam, he said, “It was my dream, to get back to the foothills. I have roots here.”
Victims can contact the CSLB hotline at 1-800-962-1125.